On Immigrant Backgrounds

In the social sciences and in day-to-day politics we often operate with the concept of immigrant background. It’s a loose concept, and often used without adequate consideration. In the social sciences, we often define anyone who has at least one foreign parent as having an immigrant background. This is systematic, but not the solution.

Following this approach all “mixed” children of one native parent and one foreign parent are considered “foreign”. In some way, that’s akin the one drop of blood used to define what counts as black in the US; a reflection of concerns over purity and boundary-making rather than attempts to create an empirically useful category.

We should simply get away from the idea that a single definition fits all our concerns. Mixed children are native speakers and are fully part of the local culture. The fact that one of their parents is “foreign” is not a deficit, but something they have in addition. This is a different case from having two foreign parents where something (language, attitudes, culture) might be missing. In a different situation, however, having a single foreign parent might be equivalent to having two. For instance, if we’re looking at discrimination, one foreign parent might be a relevant negative marker making the individual more susceptible to discrimination.

Immigrant integration beyond the indicators

Working on immigration means I often come into contact with the concept of integration. Here are three things about integration that I cannot find myself to agree.

First, there are the many indicators of integration which are drawn up on an ad-hoc basis. We end up defining the concept by the indicators, never a good approach.

Second, it is repeated like a mantra that integration is a process. I simply disagree. The fact that the degree of integration can change over time does not mean that integration is a process. Temperature is not a process either, is it? Sadly, insisting on integration being a process is usually used as an excuse not to think carefully about the concept, or as an excuse to ignore the indicators just drawn up.

Third, another mantra-like position is that integration requires both sides (immigrants, mainstream society) to change. This mixes up a normative position (what we might want or prefer) with the definition we should seek. Just think about it: if one immigrant arrives in a country and completely assimilates, did integration not take place because the mainstream society didn’t budge (maybe didn’t even notice)?

Yes, it is easy to criticize. I have at least begun my homework, and offer a constructive argument as a COMPAS working paper: “Integration is conceptualized as proximity, and a distinction is drawn between the integration of groups and individuals. It is argued that integration should be understood as assimilation in relevant dimensions, whereas in other dimension significant differences are accepted.” It still lacks an outline of different visions of society, and concrete indicators.